I’m about halfway through Further Fridays, John Barth’s second “essay, lecture, and other nonfiction” collection and find it as pleasurable and intelligent as The Friday Book, his first. Perhaps my favorite essay thus far is “A Few Words About Minimalism,” which is anything but minimalist and contains this gem:
But at least among those of our aspiring writers promising enough to be admitted into good graduate writing programs… the general decline in basic language skills over the past two decades is inarguable enough to make me worry in some instances about their teaching undergraduates. Rarely in their own writing, whatever its considerable other merits, will one find a sentence of any syntactic complexity, for example, inasmuch as a language’s repertoire of other-than-basic syntactical devices permits its users to articulate other-than-basic thoughts and feelings, Dick-and-Jane prose tends to be emotionally and intellectually poorer than Henry James prose.
(Link (obviously) added by me.)
That second sentence is delicious: perhaps Barth overindulges on other-than-basic syntax to make a point, but the way the structure of the sentence helps make the point that the sentence’s content conveys makes it so impressive. Not only that, but it makes a case without over-making it: that key word “tends” gives Barth enough wiggle room to concede that one can find emotionally and intellectually powerful writing in relative simple prose, and he never states that complex prose must be more emotionally and intellectual more powerful.
That virtue of statement and qualification is present throughout; Further Fridays is the rare collection that doesn’t overstate its claims (I’m still thinking of you, John Armstrong, although it does so at the cost of necessary complexity. You can’t make nuanced arguments about the nature of literary categorization, or movements, or literature, in soundbites and slogans, and it’s also hard to do so from a dogmatic political or philosophical position. Fortunately, Barth seems to occupy none—or, as he might say, his lack of position is his position—and the result is a feeling, no doubt illusory, that I read from the perspective of someone who simply likes to read and likes stories. And I learn from him: I can throw in that “no doubt illusory” comment to protect myself from obvious criticisms while still making the overall point about the nature of criticism.
Expect more on Barth shortly.